When Martin Moran left Denver, his hometown, for Stanford University, he thought he was going to become a lawyer. But he couldn’t squelch the passion for theater he developed during his time at George Washington High School. “I decided I had to be an actor,” Moran says. He’s resided in New York City for 32 years now, making a living both as a Broadway actor (he’s had roles in Spamalot, Cabaret, and Big River, among other productions) and a playwright.
Tonight, the 54-year-old brings his latest one-man show, All The Rage, to Curious Theatre for a monthlong run. The stimulus behind All The Rage was, in part, criticism of his first one-man show, The Tricky Part. (Based on Moran’s memoir of the same name, the Obie Award-winning, off-Broadway play dealt with Moran being molested as a teenager as well as themes of forgiveness and letting go of the past—with some humor sprinkled in.) After seeing Tricky, many people asked Moran why he wasn’t angrier about what had happened to him. “The question upset me,” Moran says. “Every play begins with a question for me. All The Rage began with the question of human anger, but led to this complex exploration of how anger and compassion function in human life, how both are important.” Moran attempts to answer his founding question through a script that has him interacting with numerous other people, from an African refugee seeking asylum, to his stepmother (with whom he has a “difficult relationship”). Before his show opens, I asked Moran to talk about the challenges of presenting such personal stories and why he chose to perform it as a one-man show.
5280: Both of these plays delve into incredibly personal topics. Is it difficult to share that with an audience full of strangers every night?
Martin Moran: I feel like most of us are storytellers. There is that natural human impulse and ability, which I have honed over the years. I’ve gotten used to standing in front of people. More importantly, perhaps, is understanding that yes, they are personal stories, but the crafting of them, the strategy of how a play is built, there’s a kind of artifice in how the plays are structured so that they’re strategic. I’m simply telling a story in the room in the moment. Even though it’s very written—written down to the commas and the periods—there’s a trick to what I do in that it sounds and seems very off-the-cuff, like I’m making it up on the spot, but that sense is extremely crafted. As personal as the stories are, I don’t think I could perform them if I thought they were really about me. What frees me to be able to perform the stories is that I think they are not ultimately about me at all but simply an exploration of being human. If I thought it was about me, I would want to be ill and run the other direction.
What was it about acting that called to you?
It was a surprise. I was a mess at that juncture of early high school, partly because these tumultuous things that happened—the narrative of [The Tricky Part and All The Rage]. The plays are about an intense Catholic upbringing and having tripped into an inappropriate sexual relationship with an older man and all that. When I found the theater, I sort of re-found a community and re-found my voice. There was a kind of joy in it that lifted me out of a funk. I was suicidal. Then I met all these fantastically weird and wonderful people. It was like a combination of sports and church choir and a party all at once—and very disciplined. I literally found my voice. I found out I was a singer. It was a great joy. It was when I first had a hint of finding a kind of passion, a love for a kind of work, that turned out to be my life’s work.
Both The Tricky Part and All The Rage are one-man shows. What draws you to that medium?
I was drawn to it because I had these questions, and as an artist I found no other way—or better way—to answer them than by telling these stories and talking. Essentially the stories grew out of an imperative, like “OK, I have to figure this out.” So it came out in writing both in book form and in performance form. Because I’m an actor, and that’s how I made my living all these years, it came kind of naturally.
What makes a good one man show?
I feel like it has to do with the show being about something larger than the person you’re coming to see. And I think humor has to be part of it. [The actor] needs to be transparent and honest. The audience knows from the second it begins that they’re in extremely good hands. You have to know that you trust me from the first second or you’re going to squirm or want to go pee. The shows go to very difficult places, like scary places about death and sex and violation and forgiveness. In order to go to that territory, I need to invite you very carefully deep into the garden, to a place where you feel safe enough to be experiencing these things together in a room with other people.
You both write and star in some of your plays. Which side of the stage do you prefer?
Not to equivocate, but I think what I found in my life is that there’s a way in which both compliment the other. When I’m a long-running musical, it’s like I go to this family at night with these fabulous actors who are friends and a huge orchestra and sing and dance. Then I spend the mornings pulling my hair out writing and digging deep. There’s nothing more gratifying, ultimately, than being able to tell your own story, to create your own art. That has given me probably the deepest satisfaction. But I have found in my life that one doesn’t want to live without the other and cannot quite live without the other. I am still a ham, and I love to perform. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of a writer, needing quiet time to write my own words. Now, I’m being commissioned to write lyrics for an opera, to write a full-length play for a theater—things that I’m not in. I find that exciting and challenging. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with being a writer that exceeds that of being an actor.
This will be your second time doing a play at Curious. What’s it like working with the team there?
I find Chip [Walton, producing artistic director] and his company to be brave and straightforward. I think Curious has guts. I’m a New York actor who works mostly on Broadway. [But I’m] from Denver, and my plays are so imbued with Denver. The streets are named, the mountains are named, the characters come from Colorado—that’s where the plays grow from. There’s a kind of beauty and danger and excitement in coming home to tell stories that I’ve told all over the world and plays that are getting done by other actors all over the place, but this is where they started, in a sense. It’s like coming back to ground zero.
Details: All The Rage runs September 4 through October 5 (showtimes vary); it runs 90 minutes without an intermission, and tickets are $18 to $44. Catch a special, limited-edition remount of The Tricky Part on September 10, 20, and 27, and October 2 and 5.